Learning & Development: Early Education - Over time

Beatrice Merrick
Monday, June 27, 2016

To mark Nursery World and Early Education’s tenth decades, Beatrice Merrick looks at campaigning on nursery issues then and now

Childcare for working mothers, two-year-olds in schools, questions about the wisdom of cutting Government expenditure on the early years in times of austerity and debates about teaching qualifications and ratios – all these topics are current policy issues. Yet all were up for debate when Nursery World’s first issue rolled off the presses 90 years ago.

It’s a sobering thought that we’re still debating similar issues more than a century after the establishment of the first nursery school in England, despite the huge – almost unimaginable – changes in nursery education over the past century.

Fellow nonagenarian Early Education is joining Nursery World’scelebration with a reminder of how, and why, we have spent the past 90-plus years campaigning on issues like these, and bringing together practitioners for ‘exchange of experience and consideration of common problems’ (as the invitation to our first conference put it). Through our campaigns, we speak out for the cause of high-quality nursery education, with an emphasis on its role in giving all children an equal start in life. But, equally importantly, we need to keep promoting conversations – between practitioners, parents and politicians – to share knowledge and expertise, and keep the debates moving forward.

Over the coming months, some of Early Education’s vice-presidents, trustees and associates will be offering their reflections on how key issues and dilemmas resonate across the decades, and what we can learn from the pioneering campaigners who led the way. So, what were and are the key issues then and now, and why are organisations such as Early Education still needed in 2016?


Free nursery education

First, as we contemplate the nearly universal take-up of free early education for three- and four-year-olds today, it’s worth remembering that such provision barely existed a century ago, when the only recognisable nursery education was a handful of Froebel’s Free Kindergartens and the McMillan sisters’ first nursery school in Deptford.

When the 1870 Education Act established elementary schools and made schooling compulsory for children over five, children of working mothers were often brought along by elder siblings. Government inspectors were alarmed at the unsuitability for young children of the large classes with their emphasis on rote learning and repetition (an echo of a more contemporary debate?) and children under five were banned from elementary schools. So, the campaign for a distinct phase of nursery education for two- to five-year-olds began.

The 1918 Education Act paved the way by allowing local education authorities to establish nursery schools. It was agreed that the best form of provision would be nursery schools led by trained teachers, with a focus on the physical care of young children as well as their mental and emotional development, and with close co-operation with the families of the children – in many ways, precursors of today’s children’s centres.

Progress in establishing new nursery schools was painfully slow. In 1921 and again in 1931, periods of national and global financial crisis led Government to put a brake on expansion. As one of our early publications recounts, ‘The cost per head in Nursery Schools entailed by insistence on adequate space and staffing, comparatively small groups of children, hygienic conditions and medical attention were considered prohibitive.’ While campaigners pointed out that increased poverty and unemployment made the need for nursery schools greater, progress was dependent on local support and voluntary effort.

Today we see another wave of austerity. It is a sign of how far we have come in providing childcare for working mothers that austerity has not led to any calls for a reduction in the free entitlement – quite the contrary, with a bidding war between the parties on extending it. Instead, it is children’s centres that are on the front line, with an infrastructure only recently developed now being torn down.

Targeted vs universal services

The current debates about targeted versus universal services reflect those earlier debates. By the 1930s, Government policy was for nursery schools to undertake ‘remedial work in slum areas’, and to be merely an ‘adjunct to the national system of education to be established only in circumstances of special need. This was far from the vision of the early campaigners who continued to call for high-quality nursery education in all localities.

Ratios and qualifications

Campaigners in those early days were also preoccupied with ratios and qualifications. They proposed ‘that nursery school staffs should include a reasonable proportion – not less than one to every 40 children – of trained and specially qualified teachers as well as other helpers’.

Government indicated it intended to appoint trained certificated teachers as superintendents, but a maximum of two teachers per nursery school, and only if there were more than 80 children (my research didn’t discover whether there was a minimum number of other ‘helpers’). We are still far from having a trained teacher in every setting, but progress has been made in terms of training for the rest of the workforce, and perhaps ratios of adults to children.

Downward pressure

Infant schools’ excessively large classes caused concern to campaigners about creating nursery classes in infant schools. Margaret McMillan was a stalwart opponent of nursery classes for this reason, but others hoped they would be a source of influence upwards on infant schools’ practice, which seems to have occurred in some measure.

Similarly today, concern about inappropriate downward pressure on nursery and Reception classes in primary schools is widespread among early years experts, and many would instead like to see the early years curriculum extended up to age seven (a debate that has also been running for a century).

Parity of conditions

Early Years Teachers take note, too: lobbying for parity of conditions of nursery school teachers with other teachers is another longstanding issue. Supportive MPs intervened in parliamentary debates in relation to the inclusion of nursery teachers in the Teacher’s Superannuation Bill, and for a Teacher’s Certificate to be endorsed after two years’ service in a nursery school. But the current Government has resisted calls for EYTs to be fully equivalent to qualified teachers, and eligible for the same pay and conditions. The fight continues.


The need to campaign on these issues led to the founding of the Nursery Schools Association, which eventually became Early Education. But a second reason was that in those early days when there were barely a dozen nursery schools, practitioners felt the need to share their experiences and build what we would now call a community of practice. And alongside the continuing need to campaign, we see an equally strong need to bring together such communities, to continue the conversations about how nursery education can continue to evolve and meet the needs of children and families.

We hope both Early Education and Nursery World will see out another 90 years or more, and while no doubt we’ll still be debating some of the same issues another century from now, let’s hope that by campaigning together as a sector and continuing those conversations with each other, with parents and with politicians, we’ll have made some more leaps forward towards the shared goal of high-quality nursery education for all.

Beatrice Merrick is chief executive of Early Education, a national charity campaigning for high-quality early childhood education, www.earlyeducation.org.uk



Look out for the other articles in this series, to be published online or in Nursery World over the coming months. Authors for the series are leading figures within the early years sector:

  • Nursery Schools: roots and new shoots’ by Sally Jaeckle, early years services manager at Bristol City Council; Sandra Mathers, Families, Effective Learning and Literacy (FELL) research group, University of Oxford; and Prof Chris Pascal, Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC).
  • Babies under 12 months’ by Peter Elfer, principal lecturer, Early Childhood Studies, University of Roehampton.
  • Susan Isaacs and the Chelsea Open Air Nursery: biophilia and the affordances of the great outdoors’ by early years consultants and trainers Kathryn Solly and Dr Sue Allingham.
  • Charlotte Mason, the McMillan sisters and the Early Nursery Teacher Training Schools as a model for today’ by Prof Cathy Nutbrown, head of theSchool of Education, University of Sheffield.
  • Early years subversives and radicals: Froebel and non-conformity’ by early years consultants Helen Moylett and Linda Pound.
  • The early childhood tradition in Scotland: then and now’ by Aline-Wendy Dunlop, visiting professor, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
  • Bertrand Russell’s perspectives on early childhood’ by Prof Tony Bertram, CREC.

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